- After Jena: Goethe’s Elective Affinities and the End of the Old Regime by Peter J. Schwartz
In After Jena, Peter J. Schwartz claims that Goethe’s Elective Affinities (1809) constitutes a seminal response to the social and political reordering of Europe in the wake of Napoleon’s victory at Jena. This is a bold claim, given that the novel foregrounds not the political, but rather the very personal story of the disintegration of a marriage. Schwartz’s study presents a rich and compelling case, making a significant contribution to the critical reception of Goethe’s novel.
As Schwartz construes it, Napoleon’s victory at Jena brought to a head a political and social crisis that was long in the making, namely the dissolution of a feudal society organized around caste distinctions and grounded in divine right. Particularly through the influence of the Code Napoleon, it helped to inaugurate a society based on equality before the law, and to liberalize property ownership and commercial transactions. Goethe began writing Elective Affinities in 1808, less than two years after Prussia’s defeat at the battle of Jena-Auerstedt, during a period of domestic political reform in Saxe-Weimar brought on by Napoleon’s victory. Curiously, although the action in the novel takes place in the months leading up to and following Jena, and though one of the four main characters, Eduard, takes part in the War of Prussia and Austria against France, Napoleon and Jena go unmentioned. Nevertheless, Schwartz argues that Napoleon’s victory—understood both as a concrete historical event, and as an emblem of the advent of modernity more generally—is a central concern in Goethe’s book. Goethe himself intimates this connection in a letter in 1809, in which he chastises those critics who fail to recognize his novel as an “immutable fact” on par with “the execution of an old king and the coronation of a new emperor” (28).
Goethe’s novel responds to the major socio-political events of its day through a critique of an aristocracy that has lost its legitimacy. This critique hinges on the novel’s portrayal of what Schwartz terms Eduard’s egotism. Schwartz carefully situates manifestations of this egotism within a larger historical context. Thus, he inflects his analysis of Eduard’s fireworks display in honour of his beloved Ottilie’s birthday (during which a boy from the village nearly drowns, foreshadowing the death of his son Otto by drowning) with a discussion of Goethe’s description, in his autobiography, of the disastrous and deadly fireworks display held to celebrate the marriage of Marie Antoinette to the future [End Page 254] Louis XVI (74–76). Schwartz thereby perceptively underscores how, for Goethe, Eduard’s egotism, his inability to renounce (entsagen) his passions, is of a piece with the loss of legitimacy of the ruling orders as a whole.
However, Schwartz also suggests that renunciation, at least in its most extreme form of self-sacrifice, cannot be Goethe’s ultimate answer to the political and social crisis of modernity. Thus, he reads Goethe’s narrative of Ottilie’s self-sacrifice as a sharp critique of Rousseau’s glorification of the manner in which his heroine, Julie, sacrifices her passions in La nouvelle Heloïse (1761). Where Julie’s death points to a utopian order united through its members’ moral identification with Julie, Ottilie’s death leads to devastation. Schwartz contends that Goethe’s critique here aims not merely at Rousseau’s immensely popular novel, but also at the founding of the French Republic upon the sacrificial execution of Louis XVI. To be sure, Schwartz argues that one of the final images of Goethe’s novel (the Architect’s contemplation of Ottilie’s beautiful corpse) does indeed impart a utopian hope, but one based neither on sacrifice nor on a politics of identification, but rather on the “morally neutral contemplation (Schauen)” of an aesthetic object (214).
One the greatest strengths...